The Austin Chronicle

The Bruce & Cory Show

Sterling and Doctorow debate scarcity, or the lack of it

By Roger Gathman, March 8, 2002, Screens

Bruce Sterling and Cory Doctorow (an Internet activist) debated the "future of scarcity" in a raucous keynote conversation that ended this year's SXSW Interactive on Tuesday. Sterling started things off by explaining that he was taking the suave, bitter, and drunken role of Dean Martin, while Doctorow was given the role of twitchy supergeek Jerry Lewis. Sterling gave vent to several rants that ran in different directions and then out of steam. They were countered by Doctorow's unvarying Open Source optimism.

Among Sterling's speculations: Napster-style technology will not only destroy the music industry but the incentive to make music, leaving the 21st century to content itself with the 20th century's backlist; that the techno-imperative argument -- either we build it, or somebody else will build it, but it will be built -- tramples on our rights as consumers, and is, p.s., fundamentally undemocratic; and that IP will be about protecting scarcity in the future.

Doctorow countered with an upbeat view of Napster ("70 million downloads in the first six months looks like a popular movement to me"), an evolutionary argument for technological improvement ("order makes itself more ordered"), and the comment that the social rule seems to be, what is crappy but available trumps what is beautiful but less available.

Sterling ended the session by reading gleefully from a news report about a riot in Chiapas that started with a raid by the police on some vendors of pirated software, hinting perhaps at real consumer price wars in our future. Doctorow ended with a comment on media industries, like Disney, and how they will make it in the age of Open Source. Disney will have to rely on its theme parks, for one thing, Doctorow asserted, since physical locations can't be downloaded.

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